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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter III

Women playing at foot ball—Singular wedding custom in Ayrshire and the Border—The ancient game of golf—Unpleasant Burgess custom at Edinburgh —The Robin Hood games—The Poor Folks in Edinburgh—The Siller Square—Customs in connection with the Blue Blanket banner —The old custom of Handfasting.


IN the ancient burgh of Musselburgh, on Shrove Tuesday, there used to be a standing match at football between the married and unmarried fishwomen, in which the former were always victorious. No doubt the knowledge that their victory would reflect honour on their “glide men and bairns” would nerve the arm and impart vigour to the stroke of the Musselburgh matrons on the occasion of these animated contests.


When a young man went to pay his addresses to his sweetheart, instead of going to her father and declaring his passion, he adjourned to a public-house, and, having made a confidante of his landlady, the object of his attachment was at once sent for. The fair maiden thus honoured seldom refused to come; and the marriage was arranged over constant supplies of ale, 'whisky, and brandy I The common form of betrothal on such occasions was as follows: the parties linked the thumbs of their right hands, whic-h they pressed together, and vowed fidelity.

“My sweetest May, let love incline ye,
Accept a heart which he designs ye;
And as you cannot, love, regret it,
Syne for its faithfulness receive it.
’Tis proof as shot to birth or money,
But yields to what is sweet and bonny;
Receive it, then, wi' a kiss and a smiley,
There’s my thumb, it will ne’er beguile ye.”

On the second day after their wedding, a creeling, as it is called, took place. That is, the newly-wedded pair and their friends assembled iri a field agreed upon, and into a small basket or creel some stones were placed. This burden the young men of the party -carried alternately, allowing themselves to be caught and kissed by the maidens who accompanied them. After a great deal of innocent mirth and pleasantry, the creel fell at length to the young husband’s share, who was generally obliged to carry it for a considerable length of time, none of the young women appearing to take compassion on him. At last his fair partner flew to the rescue, and kindly relieved him of his burden. The creel went round again, more fun ensued, then the entire company dined together and talked over the events of the day. This custom, which was generally practised in Border villages and in some parts of Ayrshire and elsewhere, was believed to shadow forth the cares a man incurred by marrying, but of which it was in the power of a good wife to relieve him.

Marriage customs, in common with those attendant on funerals, were formerly of an extravagant and peculiar character. When country couples were about to marry, all manner of contributions were showered upon them by their neighbours and friends. In olden times, it was customary for those who intended being present at the marriage to bestow a Penny Scots on the youthful pair; hence originated the term of Penny, or Paying Wedding. The festivities indulged in on those occasions frequently extended over several days, and such scenes of riot ensued in consequence of the heavy drinking that these Penny Weddings were at length condemned by the General Assembly.


Golf is an amusement said to be peculiar to Scotland. In Edinburgh, it has been a favourite pastime from time immemorial. By a statute of King James II., it was prohibited that it might not interfere with the “weapon shawings.” These were assemblies of the populace in military array and properly armed, which were organised by the Sheriff of every county at least twice in the year. Golf is commonly played on rugged ground covered -with short grass upon the seashore, called in Scotland Links. This popular pastime is usually played by parties of one or more on each side. Each person provides himself with balls and a set of clubs. The ball is extremely hard, and about the size of a tennis ball. The club with which the ball is usually struck is slender and elastic, crooked at the end, which is faced with horn, and headed with lead to render it heavy. A set of clubs consists of five iu number—a play club, a scraper, a spoon, an iron-headed club, and a short club called a putter. The second, third, and fourth of these are adopted for removing the ball from the various inconvenient positions into which it may come in the course of the game. The putter is used when a short stroke is intended. The game is played thus: —Small holes are made in the ground at the distance of about a quarter of a mile from each other, and in such a direction as to encompass the whole field. The game is won by the party who lodges his balls in the different holes in succession with the fewest strokes. The art of the game consists, first, at the outset, in striking the ball to a great distance and in a proper direction so that it may rest upon smooth ground; secondly, and this is of the greatest importance, when near the hole so to proportionate the force and direction of the stroke, or putting, as it is called, that the ball may with a few strokes he driven into the hole. Golf is a Scottish game of great antiquity. Although prohibited by James II., it was a popular pastime in the reign of James VI., who practised it himself while at Dunfermline, and introduced it afterwards at Blackheath, in Kent. During his residence in Scotland, in 1641, Charles I. played golf on the links at Leith. His royal brother, James VII., was also devoted to this national sport. The headquarters of golf is at St. Andrews; and the rules authorised by its club are adopted by all the other golfing societies throughout the country.


In the “good old times” an annual procession took place at Edinburgh on the King’s birthday, when every new burgess who presented himself was initiated by the -disagreeable process of a bumping against a stone.


The Robin Hood Games were enacted with great vivacity at various places, but particularly at Edinburgh; and in connection with them were the sports of the Abbot of Disobedience, or Unreason, a strange, half serious burlesque on some of the ecclesiastical arrangements then prevalent, and also a representation called the Queen of May. A noted historical work thus describes what took place at these whimsical merrymakings— “At the approach of May, the people assembled and chose some respectable individuals of their number—very grave and reverend citizens perhaps—to act the parts of Robin Hood and Little John, of the Lord of Disobedience or the Abbot of Unreason, and make sports-and jocosities of them. If the chosen actors felt it inconsistent with their tastes, gravity, or engagements, to don a fantastic dress, caper and dance, and incite their neighbours to do the like, they would only be excused on paying a line. On the appointed day, always a Sunday or holiday, the people assembled in their best attire and in military array, and marched in blythe procession to some neighbouring field, where the fitting preparations had been made for their amusement. Robin Hood and Little John robbed bishops, fought with pinners, and contended in archery among themselves as they had done in reality two centuries before. The Abbot of Unreason kicked up his heels and played antics like a modern pantaloon. Maid Marian also appeared upon the scene in flower-spirit kirtle, and with bow and arrows in hand, and doubtless slew hearts as she had formerly done harts. Mingling with the mad scene were the Morris-dancers, with their fantastic dresses and gingling bells. And so it continued till the Reformation, when a sudden stop was put to the whole affair by severe penalties imposed by Act of Parliament.”


Chambers, in his “Traditions of Edinburgh,” gives us the following in connection with a curious local custom—“In that part of the High Street named the Luckenbooths, and directly opposite to the ancient prison house, stood two lands of old houses. Getting old and crazy the western tenement was entirely demolished, but the eastern portion was only refreshed with a new front of stonework. The remaining building was formerly the lodging of Adam Bothwell, Commendator of Holyrood House, who is remarkable for his having performed the marriage ceremony of Queen Mary and the hated Bothwell. At the back of this house there is a projection, on the top of which is a bartizan or level roof, and there is a tradition that Oliver Cromwell lived in this lodging and used to come and sit here to view his navy on the Forth. This large pile of budding was called ‘Poor Folks Purses’ from this singular circumstance. It was formerly the custom for the privileged beggars known as ‘ Blue Gowns ’ to assemble in the Palace yard, when a small donation from the King was conferred on each of them. After receiving this dole they marched iti procession up the High Street, till they came to this spot, when the magistrates gave each a leathern purse, and a small sum of money. The ceremony concluded by their proceeding to the High Church to hear a sermon from one of the King’s chaplains.


Parliament Close, Edinburgh, being the well known resort of the Goldsmiths, it was here that country couples came for the purchase of their silver spoons on entering upon holy matrimony. In olden times it was quite customary in the country for intending bridegrooms to take a journey a few weeks previous to their marriage to the Parliament Close to purchase their siller spoons. This important transaction occasioned two journeys : one to select the spoons and furnish the initials to be marked upon them ; the other to receive and pay for them.


This was the ancient banner of the trades of Edinburgh. On its appearance, not only the artificers of Edinburgh were obliged to repair to it, but all the artificers or craftsmen within Scotland were bound to follow and fight under the Convener who took charge of it. According to an old tradition, this standard was employed in the Holy Wars by a body of crusading citizens of Edinburgh, and was the first that was planted on the walls of Jerusalem, when that city was stormed by the Christian army under the famous Godfrey de Bouillon. It is told in connection with this standard, that James III., having been kept a prisoner for nine months in the Castle of Edinburgh, by his rebellious nobles, was freed by the citizens of Edinburgh, who raised the Blue Blanket, assaulted the Castle and took it by surprise. Out of gratitude for their seasonable loyalty, James, besides certain privileges, presented them with another banner—a blue silken pennon, with powers to display the same in defence of their King, country, and their own rights, when these were assailed. The original and more celebrated banner is, we are glad to be able to state, also still in existence, and was exhibited at the opening of St. Giles’ Church.


In Catholic times the practice known as Hand-fasting was pretty general in Scotland. It was supposed to have originated from the want of Clergy, but from habit was continued by the people after the Reformation had supplied them with ministers. According to tradition, a spot at the junction of waters known as the Black and White Esk, was remarkable in former times for an annual fair which had been held there from time immemorial, but which exists no longer. At that fair it was customary for the unmarried of both sexes to choose a companion, according to their fancy, with whom to live till that time next year. This was called handfasting, or hand-in-fast. If the parties remained pleased with each other at the expiry of the term of probation, they remained together for life, if not, they separated, and were, free to provide themselves with another partner. From the various monasteries priests were sent into the surrounding districts to look after all hand-fasted persons, and to bestow the nuptial benediction on those who were willing to receive it. Thus, when Eskdale belonged to the Abbey of Melrose, a priest on whom was bestowed the name, “Book-i-the-bosom,” either because he carried a prayer book in his bosom, or perhaps a register of the marriage, came from time to time to confirm the irregular union contracted at this fair.

This singular custom was known to have been sometimes taken advantage of by persons of rank. Lindsay, in his account of the reign of James II., says, “that James, Sixth Earl of Murray, had a son by Isabel limes, daughter of the Laird of limes, Alexander Dunbar, a man of singular wit and courage. This Isabel was but hand-fasted to him, and deceased before the marriage.” If either of the parties insisted on a separation, and a child was born during the year of trip], it was to be taken care of by the father only, and to be ranked among his lawful children next after his heirs. The offspring was not treated as illegitimate, because the custom was justified being such, and instituted with a view of making way for a peaceful and happy marriage. Such was also the power of custom, that the apprenticeship for matrimony brought no reproach on the separated lady; and, if her character was good, she was entitled to an equal match as though nothing had happened. It is said that a desperate feud ensued between the clans of Macdonald of Sleat, and Macleod of Dunvegan, owing to the former chief having availed himself of this licence to send back the sister or daughter of the latter. Macleod, resenting the indignity, observed, “that since there was no wedding bonfire there should be one to solemnize the divorce.” Accordingly, he burned and laid waste the territories of the Macdonalds, who retaliated, and a dreadful feud with all its horrors took place in consequence.

Hand-fasting was deemed a social irregularity by the Reformers, and they strove by every means to repress it. In 1562, the Kirk Session of Aberdeen decreed that all hand-fasted persons should be married. With the exception of the Highland districts, the time-honoured practice of living together for “a year and a day” ceased to exist shortly after the Reformation.

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